Thoughts on the morning that Manchester United come to town
The ancient citadel of Prentonia greeted another Sunday morning with clear skies and big dreams. A biting chill hung in the air, just enough to make a man wonder, while birds fluttered in the early morning calm.
When you support Tranmere Rovers, that life-affirming ruin, mustering enthusiasm for anything can be a protracted ordeal. The morning alarm clock is typically a harbinger of pain and dull disaffection, but not today. Oh no, not today. Manchester United are coming to town, and that is extraordinary.
It took 136 years to lure them here. The biggest club from football’s most sacred nation has never ventured to Birkenhead for a competitive senior fixture. In a few hours, that will change, as the pampered stars drag their gargantuan egos into the feral fortress on Borough Road.
A quick Google search reveals that I have seen 9,245 days in my lifetime. None of them have offered the chance to see my beloved football club play Manchester United. Across this blessed town, then, people are waking with warm excitement in their souls. Often banal, frequently random and ultimately confounding, normal life can wait. Football holds that potential to unlock human happiness, and today it is our turn.
From New Brighton to New Ferry, people leapt out of bed before sunrise. From Hoylake to Heswall, they rushed about the house, butterflies touring the stomach. And from Birkenhead to Bromborough, breakfast was served abnormally early – bacon, sausage and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Even the miserable bastards in Oxton cracked a smile.
After burning a few hours with nervy exasperation, chatting aimlessly about interior design or some such dross, the time will come to grab a coat and leave for the match. Neighbours will ponder the strange euphoria radiating from your being as you throw a scarf around your neck, walk down the garden path, and fling open the gate. “TRA-ME-YEAH! Tranmere, Tranmere…”
Thousands will flood the streets, suckers for the timeless football deception that the sainted sons have a chance to win. Wirral will resemble a Lowry painting brought to life, a mobilised populace descending on its hub of eternal hope. Some will drive. Others will catch the train. Taxis and trains will lament the local police closing every road within a mile radius of the ground. Some things never change, no matter who Rovers are playing.
Beer will flow, of course, and likely a few Jaegers. I do not drink alcohol for personal reasons, but there is a beguiling poetry to the pissed-up football crowd that can never be replicated. It makes you feel alive. It makes you sing about fictional nights in gay Paris and Les Parry’s choice of attire. It offers a divergence from the strait-laced, buttoned-up, ultra-clean world that orbits the stadium, and that is sorely needed in this hypersensitive age.
The clock will tick onwards to 3pm. Onwards to the moment it all becomes real, beyond the bluster and misbegotten fantasies. You will stumble out of the fan tent, or perhaps a local boozer, beckoned to the turnstile by The Rockford Files' call to prayer. Through the gate, adrenaline soaring. Into the cauldron, endorphins flying. Up the steps, heart thumping. Out into the emerald oasis of childhood reminiscence.
The players will skip and jump about, trying to stay warm. The referee will toss a coin, confirming that Tranmere will kick towards the Kop in the second half. You will look to your right and share a smile with your brother. You will look to your left and pump a fist at your best mate. Dad will amble up the steps just in time for kick-off, and we will be away again, beholden to this mass addiction like so many times before.
Manchester United may score five, six or seven today. Let’s be honest, they probably should. For every £1 Tranmere spend on wages, United spend £83. For every £1 Tranmere generate in revenue, United generate £136. For every £1 Tranmere dedicate to transfers, United dedicate £18,219. Economics would suggest that these clubs do not belong on the same field, but romance has decreed that they shall meet.
One Manchester United player earns more than four times our entire squad combined in a typical year. However, in these parts, and on these estates, we know that any supposed correlation between wealth and ability is an unfair construct of bourgeois arrogance. Tranmere Rovers will get their chance today, and they have nothing to lose in trying to take it.
Sure, United possess players of finer skill and greater expertise, but we have heart, dear friends. We have guts and guile and garbled passion. We have honest grafters, ordinary men named Davies, Perkins and Mullin. We have what it takes to win, and do not let anybody tell you otherwise.
Our pitch is woeful. Our pitch is dangerous. Our pitch is whatever horrendous adjective you care to mention. Yet it is also an asset on days like this. It sparks the flame of belief and levels the disparity in cash, class and charisma. All pristine shirts and unflinching cool, Manchester United are in for a rude awakening. Many of their players will never have seen anything like it.
Of course, they are paid in such exorbitant excess for a reason, and they will likely find a way to pass the ball through the sand and over the divots. But write us off at your own peril, because ignorance fuels the immortal residue of Tranmere Rovers defiance.
For a moment, just consider the adversity we have overcome to earn this opportunity. In the first round, we beat Wycombe Wanderers in a replay, coming from a goal down to win 2-1 in extra-time despite playing with ten men for eighty minutes. Kieron Morris, a former Manchester United youth, scored the winner after 115 minutes. Mellon’s men never say die.
A fine win over Chichester City saw us travel to Watford in the third round. Rovers were 3-0 down after 34 minutes. Cup run over. Except they refused to give in. Amid an inexplicable recovery, Tranmere fought back to draw 3-3 before beating their Premier League opponents with another extra-time surge in the Prenton Park replay.
Alas, it can be easy for pundits to look at the League One table, see Tranmere languishing in twenty-first place, three points adrift in the relegation zone, and conclude that they must be awful. Sometimes we are. Most of the time, we are. Yet Mellon has mastered an art that John Aldridge introduced before him: that of somehow cajoling superhuman performances from his decidedly imperfect squad when the big boys come to town.
As with most things in the club’s history, the prolificacy of Tranmere’s giant-killing heroism is often overlooked. Southampton, West Ham, Everton, Sunderland, Leeds, Fulham, Bolton. All have been slain by this sequestered jewel beside the Mersey in cup competitions. This season, Rovers have fallen back in love with that drug, and this afternoon offers another rewarding toke on that pipe.
And so, we will rise again, faithful one and all. We will cram the old ground and shake it to the core. We will scream and chant and holler, urging our star-crossed assassins to play without fear and to play full of pride. Take that hallowed shirt, white silk with blue trim, and author another chapter in its greatness.
Never in their elaborate history have Tranmere Rovers been greater underdogs entering a match. But never have they had a manager like Micky Mellon nor a pitch so redolent of Thurstaston beach.
Accordingly, I believe we can win this afternoon, and I want you to do the same. You just never know in football, and that is the elixir of its magnificence. We may well lose by a cricket score, and that would only be right given the imperialist march of modern football. But we may also spring a surprise, and that would be the most wonderful thing of all.
Into these, Tranmere. Every ball’s a white ball.
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